Ash Wednesday: Sermon

A sermon preached by Mgr Andrew Burnham at Holy Rood, Oxford on Ash Wednesday, 22 February, 2012

Inter vestibulum et altare plorabunt sacerdotes, ministri Domini dicentes: parce, Domine, parce populo tuo; et ne des haereditatem tuam in opprobrium.

Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord weep and say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach’. Joel 2:17

HERE IS one of the more popular of the Ash Wednesday texts, popular in the rather specialised sense that it has been used by several composers to adorn this gloomy, yet joyful day.  Gloomy?  Spending a day fasting – if one is able to do so – abstaining from meat, and fitting in another visit to church, possibly at some personal inconvenience, sounds fairly gloomy.  Joyful?  There is something bracing in forming with fresh resolve to attend to the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving: joyful in that it always feels good to begin to get a grip on things again, to halt the slide into personal chaos, which often seems to threaten to engulf us.

What is strange about the text – between the vestibule and the altar – is that we haven’t the faintest idea when the prophet Joel was writing.  Was it in the ninth century BC, in the reign of Joash, a date favoured by nineteenth century commentaries?  If so, Joel was one of the very early  prophets.  Or was he a contemporary of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Habakkuk, writing at the end of the sixth century BC, as the Kingdom of Judah was coming to an end?  Or was he writing at the beginning of the sixth century BC, when the exiles were returning from Babylon?  In which case he would be a contemporary of Zechariah and Haggai.  Or maybe he was writing round about 400 BC, during the Persian period, as one of the last prophets.

Apart from demonstrating how much easier it is to look at Wikipedia than to trudge upstairs to consult the bible commentaries, none of that information gets us very far.  We know, from chapter 1, that Joel is dealing with a plague of locusts but is this a real plague of locusts, or is an enemy army the plague of locusts, or is there both a real plague and an enemy army which the plague only too vividly points too?  We’re overrun with locusts and, we infer from chapter 2, from which our reading is taken, something even more dangerous than locusts is poised to strike.

As I said in my Candlemas sermon, crisis and disaster has overtaken Jerusalem regularly for three thousand years.  We might be familiar with the disasters mentioned in the Bible – the Babylonian exile, the battle of the Maccabees, the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.  We might even be familiar, and hang our heads in shame, over the conquering of Jerusalem by the first crusaders in 1099, when the Moslems were massacred.  But these events are only some of the many instances of barbarism from which Jerusalem has suffered throughout its history.  So we need not worry ourselves too much whether or not the overrunning with locusts, described by Joel, is literal or allegorical.

What I do want to draw attention to is the activity of the priests, the ministers of the Lord, between the vestibule and the altar.  They were weeping and begging the Lord to spare his people.  Some commentators have said of the Thomas Tallis motet In jejunio et fletu, in which these words occur, that, publishing it in 1575, he, a Catholic, was protesting, alongside his fellow Catholic composer, William Byrd, against the destruction of the Catholic religion in Tudor England.

As it is the, words could be describing Homs, in present day Syria.  They could be in Kabul, in present day Afghanistan.  They were certainly the priests and ministers of the Lord in war-torn Europe, during two violent decades in the twentieth century.  And so we could go on.

What I want to say is this: though I have no easy answers for why God has created such a violent world, or, rather, allowed such a violence to metamorphose like a cancer amidst his beautiful creation, we do have to stare the reality of evil in the face.  There are times for dealing with the difficult questions and coming up with ingenious answers, but Ash Wednesday and Lent is not the time for this.  Lent is the time to confront two unpalatable truths.  One is that, whatever they are, evil and violence are nothing more than the playing out, on a grand scale, of the imperfections and unkindnesses, the sins venial and mortal, of each one of us, and us together.  The second is that we cannot sort out Syria or Afghanistan, or the pirates of Somalia, or the abuse of madrassas in our own country, but we can deal with our own imperfections and unkindnesses, we can bring our sins, venial and mortal, to the Lord for pardon and healing.

That doesn’t sound very much – my personal holiness being an agency of change in the world – but is really a great deal.  But, more than that, as Catholics, we still take seriously the weeping of priests and ministers between the vestibule and the altar.  We still take seriously the offering of Mass, for the salvation, spiritual and physical, of the world.  And not just a general, woolly application, but a real sense that each Mass offered achieves some real and actual benefits, not only for those who offer it but, even more, for those for whom it is offered, living or departed.

And, a final thought. That means that we do well to steer clear of the entertainment model of the Mass.  We are not here for ourselves and we are not here to enjoy anything.  And it is time to put back into proportion the ‘fellowship meal’ model of the Mass.  It is scarcely a meal, though remembering the Last Supper is part of remembering and rehearsing the Paschal mystery.  We are here to plead the sacrifice of the Mass.  We are here, playing our part in the drama of the transformation of the world, the bringing in of the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’ (Rev. 20:2).  Meanwhile God has already tabernacled amongst us, and we have Christ, our Great High Priest praying for us at the altar in heaven, as

Between the vestibule and the altar…the priests, the ministers of the Lord weep and say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach’

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